By Richard Nephew

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The likely decision by the United States to impose new sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile program and those individuals supporting it follows multiple tests of its prohibited missile systems over the past few months.  It also comes at a critical time for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Iran is in the middle of implementing its nuclear steps – as demonstrated by the export of its low enriched uranium stockpile on 27-28 December – and it is widely expected the deal will be fully implemented by the end of January or early February.

The significance of the United States taking this step now is three-fold:

First, the United States is calling out Supreme Leader Khamenei’s bluff that he would instruct the Iranian government to walk away from the JCPOA if any new sanctions regimes were imposed. Khamenei’s statement to this effect in October was clearly intended to discourage the United States from enacting additional sanctions actions, even those not covered by the terms of the nuclear deal such as these missile sanctions today. We shall soon see if Iran will jettison the sanctions relief it has begun to earn to buttress an ill-advised Khamenei pledge after reckless Iranian provocations. I suspect Iran will not break the deal, especially in light of its still precarious economic situation and fact that many states would see Iran at least partially culpable in the collapse of the deal as a result of its missile launching provocations.

Second, the Obama Administration is underscoring that while it will not rise to every provocation, it is not afraid of Tehran walking away from the JCPOA and will not be deterred from using all available tools to respond to Iran’s violations of its international obligations, including those beyond the JCPOA. Iran’s missile launches were neither unexpected (Iran’s ballistic missile program is thirty years old and Iran has been launching missiles throughout the time such actions were prohibited by the UN in June 2010) nor were they violations of the JCPOA.  Yet, some saw the missile tests and lack of immediate U.S. unilateral sanctions or alternative response as a sign of things to come.  The theory ran that the United States would be so afraid of Iran backing out of the JCPOA that sanctions would be put on the shelf permanently, a concern that Khamenei’s aforementioned pledge seemed to make more likely.  But, the Administration has maintained that Khamenei’s threat to give up on the deal would not prevent the United States from acting as it deemed fit, consistent with the JCPOA, to deal with Iran’s bad behavior within the JCPOA and outside of it. Simply put, those questioning the Administration’s resolve to confront Iran when needed are once again being proven wrong.  The Administration is acting when it had a sanctions case to make and does not seem likely to let the imminent timing of JCPOA formal implementation dissuade it from its course (even if it appears to have prudently waited for Iran’s low enriched uranium stocks to leave the country before acting this week).  The Administration is showing prudence, common sense, and resolve in this act, and should be praised accordingly.

Third, the expected action itself shows the limitations of additional sanctions against Iran’s missile program. Although meaningful as a symbol, the scope of the potential new measures underscores the fact that, effectively, Iran’s missile program has already been about as sanctioned as it can be. Direct support for the missile program is prohibited under both UNSC resolutions – which will ease in eight years – and under US law, which will not. The key actors in Iran’s missile program are under specific sanctions as well and this will not change, at least in the United States, until Washington no longer has concerns about the missile program. Implementation of existing measures will continue to impede the missile program, perhaps far more so than any new sanctions action. Therefore, though the expected announcement of new sanctions is important for both its intrinsic and symbolic value, no one should mistake these new sanctions as being the most critical ones in place and this should inform future hyperventilation about the need for new sanctions, should Iran test missiles again.

We will now see what Iran will do to respond. Iran may hold back on implementation of the JCPOA. It may test more missiles and Rouhani’s statement that he ordered the Defense Ministry to speed up missile development probably makes this inevitable (though it is suspect how much faster or harder Iran’s missile program will actually go as a result of Rouhani’s comments). But, Tehran will almost certainly not walk away from the JCPOA altogether. Further, Iran’s leaders will understand that their provocations come with consequences, and that others – and the United States, in particular – will defend their own interests and credibility as firmly as Iranians do.

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Richard Nephew is the program director for Economic Statecraft, Sanctions and Energy Markets at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. Prior to joining CGEP in February 2015, he served as principal deputy coordinator for Sanctions Policy at the Department of State, a position he assumed in February 2013. Nephew also served as the lead sanctions expert for the US team negotiating with Iran, and from May 2011 to January 2013, he was the director for Iran on the National Security Staff where he was responsible for managing a period of intense expansion of US sanctions on Iran.